ASK Musings

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CBR12 Archive

Sunday

13

September 2020

0

COMMENTS

Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil

Written by , Posted in Politics, Reviews

4 Stars

Best for:
Anyone concerned about how inequity is perpetuated by seemingly ‘neutral’ or ‘scientific’ processes.

In a nutshell:
Data scientist O’Neil explores what she calls WMDs, or Weapons of Math Destruction – large algorithms that are largely opaque and control aspects of our lives, from college rankings and admissions to credit scores to voting. She argues that these systems are flawed and have biases built in that harm all of us.

Worth quoting:
“The human victims of WMDs, we’ll see time and again, are held to a far higher standard of evidence than the algorithms themselves.”

“A model’s blind spots reflect the judgments and priorities of its creators.”

Why I chose it:
Seemed appropriate given the recent A-level shitstorm we’ve lived through in the UK.

Review:
Every August in England, 17- and 18-year-olds find out their A-level scores. Unlike in the US, where basically unless you royally screw up in the final term of your senior year you are going to the University you were accepted to in March, in the UK students receive conditional offers. Let’s say you want to go study Chemistry. Well, at a top school, you might receive a condition offer of AAA – meaning you need As on three of your A-levels (the best mark is an A*), and one of those will need to be Chemistry. Okay, so come mid-August, you go to your school and learn that you received … AAA! Hurrah! You confirm your place at university, and start the following month.

This year, because of the pandemic, A-level exams were scrapped. Instead, the government put together an algorithm that was meant to sort out what grades students would have gotten had they sat their exams. It was based on a few things, like practice exams, coursework, etc. It also, apparently, took past performance of the school a student attended into account.

Do you see where this is going?

On results day, tens of thousands of students received A-level results DRAMATICALLY lower than what they had been predicted to get. And the general theme was that those lower scores were received by students in areas with overall poorer performing schools. Students were essentially punished by the algorithm for doing too well, and had their places in university pulled out from under them, upending their entire futures. In the end, the algorithm was scrapped, students were put through horrible stresses, and universities now have more students than they would have, in the middle of a pandemic.

I share this story because I can see it making its way into this book during the next revision. O’Neil is a great writer, making a book that could have been dry and confusing extremely easy to read and engaging. It’s also infuriating,

She looks at things like credit scores being used to rule people out of jobs, at recidivism models used in sentencing in the criminal punishment system, and even the college rankings in US News and World Report. She also touches on how Facebook and Google create profiles using all the data they have, adjusting their targeting accordingly.

She refers to algorithms as ‘opinions formalized in code,’ and that’s especially frightening considering how many people view such algorithms as value-neutral and just ‘showing data.’ The negative impacts – generally borne by people who are poor, or aren’t white – are seen not as self-perpetuated by the models themselves, but as moral failings of the individuals who are judged by these flawed systems. Its insidious.

It seems inescapable, but O’Neil does offer some suggestions at the end, and they don’t seem entirely out of the realm of possibility (GDPR, which is law in the EU, is one fix, and it passed). But man, it’s yet another thing that our society needs to fix.

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Keep it

Thursday

10

September 2020

0

COMMENTS

Jar City by Arnaldur Indriðason

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
Fans of murder mysteries set in Iceland.

In a nutshell:
CN: Sexual Assault

Detective Erlendur is called to investigate the murder of an older man. As the investigation unfolds, he discovers a possible link to crimes the victim committed in the past.

Worth quoting:
N/A

Why I chose it:
I like mysteries set in Iceland, and this series comes generally well-reviewed.

Review:
This book didn’t exactly go where I expected it to, but it wasn’t so outlandish that one couldn’t start to figure it out. There are components that feel uniquily Icelandic (which I can’t share because spoilers), but also some common themes one would expect in a crime novel. The entire book focuses on this one murder, but there are a couple of side stories, including an exploration of Erlendur’s relationship with his daughter, who has a substance use disorder.

Indriðason’s writing style is pretty easy to follow, even for someone like me who has only been to Iceland once, is not used to the names and only has a passing understanding of the geography of the area. He’s good at describing a scene (there’s a part where they are looking closely inside a home, and I have such a vivid image of it even now), but also gets dialogue across easily – it doesn’t feel overwritten, and it seems usually like yes, these people would likely say these words. Which frankly isn’t always the case.

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the Detective. Divorced, absentee father … seems like every other detective I can picture. But he doesn’t seem to be a misogynist or sexist, so that’s a nice change. He is genuinely pissed when he hears about how the sexual assault case was originally handled, and seems to have sympathy and empathy for the women he encounters in the book. But annoyingly pretty much all the women in the book that he encounters are suffering in some way. I mean, it’s a crime novel, so duh. But there is a woman detective – Elinborg – who gets some time in the book and seems competent. I’m hoping she gets more coverage in future books in the series.

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Donate it

Monday

7

September 2020

0

COMMENTS

Necessary People by Anna Pitoniak

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Rating:
4 Stars

Best for:
People who enjoy a quick, unexpected read, a bit in the style of Gone Girl.

In a nutshell:
Violet is a quiet woman who comes from a background of limited means. Stella is a very rich woman (think family money + Instagram influencer glam). They meet at college and become close friends. But that friendship seems reliant on each of them fulfilling their roles, and when one steps out, things get … rough.

Worth quoting:
“It wasn’t that my personality changed when I met Stella. It was that it became, it flourished, because I could say things to Stella that I wouldn’t have said to anone back home – knowing the would only respond with bafflement, or laughter – and she always volleyed right back, sharpening me like a whetstone to a knife.”

Why I chose it:
I wanted a book I couldn’t put down, and this pretty much fit the bill.

Review:
While we get some time learning about their dynamics at university at the start of the book, the focus is on the time in their 20s, where Violet gets a position as an intern at a cable news network, while Stella goes off to travel the world. Violet lives in an apartment that Stella’s family owns, paying minimal rent. She’s always conscious of how she needs to act to try to fit in with Stella’s family (as she is estranged from her own), and feels invisible but is mostly okay with it. However, as she works her way up the ranks at the network, she finds more confidence, and is less reliant on Stella for validation. Then, Stella decides maybe being on-camera is what she wants to do, and she has the connections to make it work. Things evolve from there, and I won’t spoil it, but I was both a bit surprised and intrigued.

I find that my friendships with women (as a woman) – especially ones formed at critical times in life, such as during college – can be extremely intense. I made a friend in graduate school who was basically my other half for a few years. We were nearly always a package deal, showing up to events together, going on adventures (she had a car in NYC!), travelling together. Things eventually cooled a bit as I moved away and she got married and had kids, but we are still close enough that we keep in touch around the really important things. But for awhile, she was basically the person I spoke to every day (that’s right, this was before texting was as prevalent as it is now), and who I relied on for advice. On the occasion that things between us were rough, it was harder than other arguments.

This book looks at one particular type of friendship between women – the kind where the power differential is extremely skewed. Friendships aren’t supposed to be about power, obviously, but I think it’s not too extreme to say that in some friendships, we fulfill certain roles. With some friends, I’m the optimist, always offering a look at the bright side. With others, I’m the one who tends to have a lot of knowledge about certain topics, so certain friends come to me. And in some friendships its the opposite – I find myself seeking out the wisdom and knowledge of others. In the case of Violet and Stella, however, their roles are specifically defined and seemingly unchangeable. And the question of the book is can — or should — their friendship survive when one of them is no longer willing to stay within that role.

Keep it / Recommend it / Donate it / Toss it:
Recommend it

Saturday

5

September 2020

0

COMMENTS

Down Girl by Kate Manne

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
Those looking for a deeper look into what misogyny really is.

In a nutshell:
Philosopher Kate Manne explores different definition of misogyny, providing support for her hypotheses with case studies many of us will be familiar with.

Worth quoting:
“Sexism [is] the branch of patriarchal ideology that justifies and rationalizes a patriarchal social order, and misogyny as the system that polices and enforces its governing norms an expectations. So sexism is scientific; misogyny is moralistic.”

Why I chose it:
I love philosophy and philosophical explorations of topics. I don’t love misogyny. Seemed like a good fit.

Review:
I’ve struggled with the difference between sexism and misogyny, and have usually used them interchangeably. I appreciate that with this book, Manne offers up definitions that can be supported with evidence. This is important to me because I think working from shared definitions helps to identify problems as well as work on solutions to them.

If I’ve understood her correctly (and I think I have), sexism is saying that once a woman has a child, it is her duty to stay home to raise the child, because that’s what women do. Misogyny is thinking ill of a woman who has a child but chooses to work outside the home, because she is not fulfilling her role as a woman. One is, as Manne says, ideological; the other is moral.

This definition is useful because misogyny is a thing, it’s a bad thing, and because folks recognize ‘misogyny’ as bad, they will bend themselves in all sorts of shapes to avoid accepting that they – or their actions – have any relation to it. In one of the chapters, Manne talks about how this can lead to a version of the ‘no true Scotsman’ fallacy, where the definition is so narrow as to not apply to anyone. “He has a wife! He loves her! He can’t be a misogynist!.”

Oh, but he can. And actually, she can as well! Because, as Manne argues, to engage in misogyny is to judge and punish women for not fulfilling their roles in our patriarchal society, for not giving what we deem women should give, and for attempting to take what we think men should have. So Mike Pence, say, can very much love his wife, and that love is not in spite of her being a woman. But he is still a misogynist when he judges and condemns women for seeking abortions (as they are not fulfilling their duty as mother / caregiver).

Manne often revisits the case of the Isla Vista guy who published a manifesto about how women were denying him his right to sexual gratification. He went on to kill many people, include men (though his original goal was to massacre a Sorority), before killing himself. In the aftermath, many people said he was ‘troubled’ and ‘mentally ill,’ but not a misogynist, because hey, he mostly killed dudes! But Manne argues throughout that the acts were motivated by misogyny, because the central issue for the Isla Vista killer was that women were giving other men attention that he deserved. The women were failing in their duty to provide him with romantic and sexual attention that was due him as a man. That is a misogynistic view of women.

Another side that Manne explores is the concept of the double standard, where women are judged harshly for being as successful as, or seeking the same roles as men. I tend to think of that as the ‘if she’s assertive, she’s a bitch but if he’s assertive he’s a leader’ idea. Women are not only judged for seeking positions of power outside the roles the patriarchy has decided fit us, but women are then judged for how we perform in those roles, whether that’s being held to an impossible standard or having outright lies made up about us and how we got where we are.

She also looks at how women can express misogynistic views, and spends a fair bit of time on this when looking at Hillary Clinton’s electoral college loss in 2016. So much of the revisiting of the election of 2016 made me angry, and a lot has been written about that time, but I think there are new things, interesting things, said here. Including how so much ink has been spent on what Clinton did wrong, but not nearly as much on what responsibility voters have for the decisions we made, and what role misogyny truly played in her not getting the US Presidency.

I also appreciate one little footnote that addresses the idea of misandry (which, hilariously, the software I’m using to write this review doesn’t recognize as a word). Given her premise that misogyny is based on a judgment of women for not fulfilling their roles as outlined in our patriarchal society, then misandry sort of … can’t exist. Because we don’t live in a matriarchy, so men can’t be judged based on not fulfilling those roles as set out by the matriarchy. Heh.

This book is generally accessible, but it does have a bit of a philosophy-paper vibe to it at times, which might not be familiar to some folks. There are a few phrases in there that I had to look up (clearly in the 10 years that have passed since I got my philosophy degree many things have faded from memory), but overall I think it’s a pretty easy read, given the topic.

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Keep it

Friday

28

August 2020

0

COMMENTS

Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
Anyone who enjoys clever, interesting essays that will make them laugh.

In a nutshell:
Author Irby is back with her third collection of essays, which cover what her life is like these days, as well as just some hilariously repetitive takes on the exact same phrase.

Worth quoting:
“Sure, sex is fun, but have you ever used a really absorbent towel?”

Why I chose it:
I was looking for a book to listen to while running, and realized I both hadn’t yet read this one AND it was read by the author.

Review:
Usually when I go for runs I listen to the podcast versions of four of the MSNBC weeknight shows so I can stay up with what’s going on back in the US. But it can be super depressing these days, and not exactly motivational when one is training for a half marathon. So I decided for the last few runs leading up to my ‘race’ this week (and by race, I mean I just ran 13.1 miles one morning because the Edinburgh half was once again postponed) I wanted something funny, that could make the time go quickly and also could keep me entertained.

I chose … wisely.

I appreciate Irby’s writing style. She’s honest and self deprecating, but not in the sort of way where one thinks she’s trying to get pity. She’s just clear about how she is, what she likes, and what she doesn’t. She’s not insulting to others who might do things differently – she just lives her life, while telling stories about all the shit in it that has gone wrong (and, occasionally, right).

I definitely like her storytelling, but I also found that some of my favorite chapters and moments in the book were when she would follow a theme and provide just a bunch of funny one-liners. An entire chapter is just, what, like 100 versions of ‘Sure, sex is fun but…’ followed by a lot of mundane yet awesome things. Another chapter is just her repeated saying ‘Hello, 911?’, followed by a problem or situation one definitely should not call 911 about, but secretly people might want to (and actually would just as well if it were ‘Hello, 411?’, though she probably figured that much of her audience wouldn’t remember what 411 even was). Even in a chapter about some issues she had with her uterus, the list of things she would rather do than keep it had me in tears of laughter.

I can definitely see myself listening to this one again.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Keep it (but I’ll recommend it to friends too)

Saturday

22

August 2020

0

COMMENTS

The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James

Written by , Posted in Politics, Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
Those interested in the history of enslaved people who successfully fought back.

In a nutshell:
Enslaved people revolt against the British, Spanish, and French over twelve years, eventually creating Haiti.

Worth quoting:
“The cruelties of property and privilege are always more ferocious than the revenges of poverty and oppression.”

Why I chose it:
I received this as a birthday gift this year.

Review:
You will be shocked to learn that I, a white woman raised and educated in the US, knew nothing about how Haiti came to be. I KNOW. It’s almost as though the history I was taught was incomplete in some very specific ways.

This fascinating book tells the story of how those who were enslaved in what is now Haiti revolted across over a dozen years to eventually claim victory by ensuring an end to slavery, expelling the French colonial government, and declaring independence.

The story told by this book begins 229 years ago this week (21 August 1791), and follows the complexities of race, class, slavery, and revolution. The main focus is on Toussaint Louverture, who led most of the revolution, though eventually he was taken to France and died in jail. He was a slave until 1776, then fought in multiple battles until undertaking, with others, a fight inspire by the French revolution.

I have some trouble following detailed military histories, especially when I don’t have the basics already in mind. I only recognized one name in this book before I read it – Napoleon, and he only shows up in the last 50 pages or so. I think to truly grasp everything in here, I would need to read it at least two more times, maybe more. But that speaks not to the quality of the writing, but to my lack of foundational knowledge of the subject.

I’d recommend this to anyone who is interested in history and the fight for freedom.

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Keep it

Friday

21

August 2020

0

COMMENTS

How to Machine Sew by Susie Johns

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Five Stars

Best for:
People who have never used a sewing machine.

In a nutshell:
Author Johns provide an extremely basic overview of how to use a sewing machine, and then follows it up with projects to practice on.

Worth quoting:
N/A

Why I chose it:
After the last book, I did a bit more research before clicking purchase. This one looked to actually explain how to use a sewing machine.

Review:
It’s exciting when a book meets one’s needs and desires exactly, and this is one such book for me. As I mentioned in my last review, I’m interested in learning how to machine sew, but am 100% baffled by my new (very very basic) sewing machine. And yes, I am sure there are videos to watch that will help me understand what I’ve read, I have always learned best by reading about something before I watch a video. I need context, and to take things in myself.

This book starts out explaining the parts of the machine, but also showing how it works – there are easy to follow diagrams. It also includes additional tools to have (shears, pins, etc.). And then it gets right into the projects! Each one is meant to help develop techniques – the first is literally just practicing different stitches on a fabric square that I’ll turn into a pot holder. Each project includes the exact materials needed, starts with the technique I’ll be learning, then includes step by step instructions. They aren’t the most dramatic of projects (pot holder, place settings, drawstring bag), but they are all things I could use in the house.

I’m genuinely excited to try these things out, and so happy I found this book.

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Keep it

Monday

17

August 2020

0

COMMENTS

Sew Step by Step by Alison Smith MBE

Written by , Posted in Uncategorized

Two Stars

Best for:
People who already know how to use a sewing machine (despite the title)

In a nutshell:
Author Smith shares some great detailed information regarding making garments and other items, assuming you know how to use a sewing machine.

Worth quoting:
N.A

Why I chose it:
I’m trying to teach myself machine sewing and this book claimed to be a how-to for using a sewing machine.

Review:
If this book only claimed to help with patterns, fabrics, seams, etc, it would be a 5 star review. The photos and diagrams are great, the detail seems to be about right. It’s well-organized and easy to navigate.

But.

This book claims to teach sewing machine use. The sub-title literally is “how to use your sewing machine…” The back description says “Discover how to …use a sewing machine.” It does not do any of that. There is one (1) photo of a sewing machine that is basically the same as the diagram in the instruction booklet that came with my machine, where they point out the parts. But there is zero discussion of what the different parts do! What’s the point? What the fuck is a bobbin? There seem to be two places that thread goes through – why? Seriously, how does the sewing machine work?

In a book that is more than 200 pages long, I am baffled that the author didn’t include an additional three or four pages providing even a high level overview of machine sewing. It’s odd – the book both assumes no knowledge of machine sewing (given all the detail provided in all the other sections – different seams, hems, buttonholes, etc.) and yet provides no knowledge of how to use a sewing machine.

Just … what? Why? I’d argue this is a failure of editing as much as the author – someone at some point should have said “hey, if you’re going to market this as a book to teach people how to use a sewing machine, you should include some information on how to use a sewing machine.”

I cannot recommend this book for people who are new to machine sewing, but I definitely recommend it to people who are looking for a good reference book after having a couple years of experience with their sewing machine.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Keep it for once I actually know how to sew – the other parts seem very helpful!

Tuesday

14

July 2020

0

COMMENTS

Our Enemies in Blue by Kristian Williams

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
Those new to the idea of police abolition, and who are interested in learning more about the history of policing in the US.

In a nutshell:
Author Williams provides a thoroughly researched examination of the brutally violent world of US policing.

Worth quoting:
“If we do the math, we see that the police kill almost seven times as often as they are killed. The fact is, the police produce far more casualties than they suffer.”

“Despite its initial plausibility, the idea that the police were invented in response to an epidemic of crime is, to be blunt, exactly wrong.”

“Wherever the sympathies of individual officers may lie, the institution’s imperatives are always in the service of power.”

“Worst of all, the new intolerance sometimes makes crimes ou of the most human, humanizing, and humane aspects of city life, the elements that make it tolerable — or for some people, possible.”

Why I chose it:
I bought this a couple of years ago. It came with me when I moved to the UK, but it’s so long (400 pages plus citations). But it seemed time to finally open it.

Review:
Even though I was raised by my parents and community (D.A.R.E., anyone?) to trust the police, I’ve always been a bit scared of them. The power they hold has made me hesitant to call them even when it was generally deemed appropriate to do so. These days, as I’ve learned more about who the police are and how they treat people who don’t look like me, calling them is the absolute last resort. When they are in my neighborhood I slow down to see how the interaction is going, to determine whether I need to say something, or pull out my phone to record them.

But even with that very basic understanding that the police are not here to protect anything other than property, and perhaps middle-class and rich white people, I still wasn’t very well versed in the history of policing in the US, so I picked up this book. It is definitely what I would consider a tome. It is not a quick read, but it also not a hard read, as in difficult to understand. But it is hard to read, because the brutality that serves as the foundation — and the walls, and the roof, and the furniture — of this institution is unbroken. From the slave patrols, through to connections with the KKK; helping to break strikes and kill labor organizers; to overpolicing communities of color and murdering Black men, women, and children for the crimes of: sleeping in their own apartments (Breonna Taylor), carrying a BB gun in an open carry state (John Crawford III), possibly using a counterfeit bill (George Floyd), playing in a park (Tamir Rice); the police in the US cannot be trusted.

Much of this book is a history lesson, detailing various atrocities along with the different policies and political machinations that have only increased the power of the police of the years. Williams pulls no punches, but he doesn’t have to – the facts speak for themselves. But in the afterward, Williams discusses alternatives to policing. He doesn’t lay out any clear answers or programs that will definitely work, but there are so many community-based organizations out there now that have offered options that I would refer to instead, like the BREATHE Act put forth by the Movement for Black Lives.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Donate it

Sunday

12

July 2020

0

COMMENTS

Hood Feminism: Notes From the Women White Feminists Forgot by Mikki Kendall

Written by , Posted in Feminism, Reviews

Five Stars

Best for:
People who consider themselves feminists.

In a nutshell:
Author Mikki Kendall shares a variety of essays covering topics and areas that very much fall under the concept of feminism but that are often left out of the discussion by mainstream white feminists.

Worth quoting:
“Girls like me seemed to be the object of the conversations and not full participants, because we were a problem to be solved, not people in our own right.”

“We have to be willing to embrace the full autonomy of people who are less privileged and understand that equity means making access to opportunity easier, not deciding what opportunities they deserve.”

“We must move away from the strategies provided by corporate feminism that teach us to lean in but not how to actually support each other.”

Why I chose it:
I follow Ms Kendall on Twitter and saw that she had written a book. Given what I’d seen in her tweets, I knew I’d want to read her work in longer form.

Review:
I am a feminist. I am interested in fighting for equal rights, opportunities, access, and freedoms for all women. What that has meant in practice, however, has often been fighting for the things that are most affecting ME, and not the things that impact women facing more serious challenges.

Ms Kendall’s argument is that white feminism has been very narrowly focused on what white, middle-class women want, and she offers up many areas where white feminism needs to get its shit together. Whether looking at racism, misogynoir, ableism, white supremacy, or examining the challenges of housing insecurity, poverty, education, or reproductive justice, Ms Kendall points out what some of the real struggles and challenges are, and how mainstream feminism has failed – and could start – to provide support and take action.

One big component of all of this is looking at who an action or policy or work centers. Take reproductive health and reproductive justice as one example. Yes, of course I want all people who can give birth to have access to abortions and birth control. But for many pro-choice activists, that’s where it ends. Whereas Ms Kendall makes the case that reproductive justice means so much more – it means access to full healthcare, and it means receiving the support that is needed once someone DOES have a child – food, housing, childcare, education, etc.

The issues Ms Kendall discusses in this book can be fixed, but it takes serious work, work that the people who are experiencing them are already doing. It’s important that the feminists she’s speaking of don’t look at the issues and decide to get all white savior-y on them; a key thing this book has reinforced is to look at who is already doing the work and see how to best support them.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Keep it